The Ideas of Karl Marx
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The Ideas of Karl Marx

A Critical Introduction

Stefano Petrucciani, Guido Parietti

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eBook - ePub

The Ideas of Karl Marx

A Critical Introduction

Stefano Petrucciani, Guido Parietti

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About This Book

This book offers a complete presentation of the most important themes of Marx's thought, following the development of Marx's theory from the beginning to his death and offering a reconstruction and analysis that covers the whole of Marx's life and works. Each chapter presents one of the central topics of Marx's reflection: the confrontation with the Hegelian theory of the State (1843); the critique of political liberalism in the "On the Jewish Question"; the discovery of Political Economy in the Manuscripts of 1844; the new theory of history developed in The German Ideology; the political theory and the revolution of 1848; the critique of political economy from the Grundrisse to Capital; and the political thought of the last Marx (the Paris Commune and the critique of the German Social Democratic Party). Stefano Petrucciani is Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Rome La Sapienza, Italy.

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© The Author(s) 2020
S. PetruccianiThe Ideas of Karl MarxMarx, Engels, and Marxismshttps://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-52351-0_1
Begin Abstract

1. The Education of a Young Hegelian

Stefano Petrucciani1
(1)
Sapienza University of Rome, Rome, Italy
End Abstract

1.1 Marx’s First Steps as a Student

Karl Marx’s position in the development of modern thought is not easily defined; his intellectual stance, in fact, hardly fits within usual disciplinary divisions. Especially at the time of his education and earliest works, Marx is a philosopher of the Hegelian left, even if a peculiar one. Already with The German Ideology, however, Marx is moving toward the transformation of philosophy into a theory of society and history, and with that he qualifies as one of the founding fathers of modern social science. In the period culminating with the European revolution of 1848 (when Marx publishes, with Engels, the Manifesto of the Communist Party) Marx is first and foremost a political thinker; but the greatest work of his life, Capital (first volume published in 1867) bears the subtitle “Critique of Political Economy,” placing Marx among the classics of modern economics. Marx, thus, cannot be slotted into a single discipline: through philosophy and social theory, politics and economics, his work appears as a unique occurrence in the history of thought; this is true both for its distinctively multi-disciplinary character and for its extraordinary influence on culture and, most importantly, European and world history.
Marx’s unique character, which made him the most influential thinkers of the last two centuries, may be comprehended only by understanding his work, irreducible to any specific discipline as it is, through its own peculiarity. And this peculiarity lies precisely in the fact that Marx has been the first thinker in Western history to articulate a radical critique of society, at once as a science and as a political-organizational perspective. In this way, Marx created something previously unheard of, a radical innovation the like of which the history of the West had never known.
Naturally, before Marx there had been attempts, more or less moralistic, to criticize society, property, and inequality. Likewise, instances of radical revolutionary politics were not unknown—for example in the most extreme factions of the French Revolution, such as Babeuf’s “conspiracy of the equals.” Rousseau, in his Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Mankind, had developed a deep philosophical critique of an inegalitarian society. But only with Marx, a century later, the critique makes that extraordinary leap which brings together scientific, historical, and economic knowledge of society while connecting the theory to a political-practical perspective, itself grounded on social analysis and real class conflicts. What are, then, the steps through which Marx develops his radically new critical perspective? Here we shall go through these steps, reconstructing their essential argumentative turns.
Marx was born on May 5, 1818, in Trier, from a family of the Jewish bourgeoisie which had converted to Lutheranism. His father—Heinrich, an esteemed lawyer of liberal and Francophile proclivities—nudged the son toward the study of law, and so Marx enrolled at the university of Bonn in 1838, at the tender age of seventeen. Only a year later, though, Marx left Bonn for the university of Berlin where, Hegel having taught until his death in 1831, Hegelian philosophy was still very influential. Thus, Marx’s intellectual education happens under the aegis of Hegel’s philosophy, to which he promptly converts, abandoning earlier sympathies for Kant and Fichte.1 A letter to his father documents this first essential turning point in Marx’s biography. The letter is a broad reflection on Marx’s philosophical convictions as they then stood. There Marx writes he had read Hegel “from beginning to end,”2 and that he was eventually swayed by a philosophy he had initially rejected (its “grotesque and rocky melody had never been to my taste”).3 Crucially, and differently from Kant and Fichte, Hegel did not place the ideal above the real, but rather sought “the idea in reality itself. If previously the gods had dwelt above the earth, now they became its centre.”4
Having thus arrived at Hegelian dialectic despite himself, Marx resolved to abandon legal studies and turn toward philosophy. En route to an expedite graduation Marx submitted his dissertation at the university of Jena, where on April 15, 1841 (without being present) he was declared doctor in philosophy, with a thesis on The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature. The dissertation is an erudite and accurate work which, for its methodology and form, fits perfectly within the Hegelian school of philosophical historiography. As noted by various scholars,5 though, Marx’s conclusions are almost opposite to Hegel’s appraisal of the two Greek thinkers in his lecture on the history of philosophy, because Marx emphasized the theoretical value of Epicurus above Democritus. Marx’s reasons to inquire this moment of the history of thought, however, were hardly academic or historical-philosophical; what he rather wanted was to employ the reflection on post-Aristotelian philosophies (Stoicism, Skepticism, Epicureanism) in the context of his contemporary intellectual environment. And thus the basic question: What is left for those who (like Marx) find themselves thinking after the completion of a great systematic philosophy (then Aristotle, now Hegel), that is to say after a “conclusive” theory which seems to have expressed and exhausted in itself all potentialities of human reason?
Hegel’s philosophy is indeed conclusive in many respects. First because, logically, it develops a concept of truth as a result of the whole process of the history of thought (conceptually reconstructed). The Hegelian summa does not leave anything out of itself, it recognizes to every past philosophy the merit of having developed one category of logic (which is to say, of reality), and it takes on itself the task of drawing the final implications of a thought process which arrives at full and definitive self-awareness in Hegelian philosophy itself. Hegel interprets history as the progress of the consciousness of freedom; a freedom which in the modern age is finally universalized, organizing a reality which makes itself into reason. But if that is so, what role can an intellectual, such as Marx, perform within the horizon of a Hegelian system understood as the “conclusive” and “ultimate” philosophy? Overcoming Hegel from a new point of view is impossible, for in his philosophy all points of view are already included, with their limits and merits properly recognized; what can one do, then?
For the group of critical intellectuals usually labeled as young Hegelians (Bruno Bauer, Arnold Ruge, Moses Hess)—some of whom were personal friend and intellectual companions of Marx in Berlin—the problem was understood primarily on two levels: politics and theory of religion. The critical task appears to be that of completing the work that Hegel could not, or would not, complete. If it is true that in modernity reason made itself into a reality, affirming the universal principle of freedom, then one needs to develop the concrete implications of this principle into action, criticizing whatever residual irrationality persists in empirical existence: the authoritarian institutions of the Prussian State and the masses’ dependency on religious faith. Philosophy, Marx writes in the Preface to his dissertation, chooses Prometheus as its hero, and with him it stands «against all heavenly and earthly gods who do not acknowledge human self-consciousness as the highest divinity».6 It appears, then, that post-Hegelian philosophers have to translate the philosophical principle into critical-practical activity, so as to purify the existing world from the irrational remnants which have already been overcome in thought—which, at once, means to criticize Hegel, not for his principles, but for his accommodations to extant political and religious institutions.
Marx is, in a sense, part of this general context and mood, but he also seems to find in it problems and contradictions which leave him unsatisfied. It is not enough, Marx wrote in a note of his dissertation, for the disciples to criticize Hegel’s compromises with the bad that still exists in reality; this moralistic approach must rather be abandoned in favor of a scientific one. In other words, one needs to ask whether the “accommodations” might not be rooted in some intrinsic defect of Hegel’s philosophical framework, «in an inadequacy or in an inadequate formulation of his principle itself».7 But asides from Hegel himself, there are more problems with his disciples and the spiritual situation of the Hegelian “left.” If philosophy was completed in Hegel, it seems all is left is to make the world adequate to it: «philosophy, expanded to be the whole world, turns against the world of appearance».8 This attitude is in...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Front Matter
  3. 1. The Education of a Young Hegelian
  4. 2. The Critique of Liberalism
  5. 3. The Discovery of Economics
  6. 4. A New Conception of History
  7. 5. A Time for Revolution: Marx and 1848
  8. 6. The Critique of Political Economy
  9. 7. The International, the Paris Commune, Social Democracy
  10. Back Matter